What does the bible say about giving to the poor? Read this chapter from Your Finances God’s Way to learn about the scriptures on taking care of the poor.
Table of Contents
- A Better Approach to Giving to the Poor
- A Command Versus Suggestion
- A Good Example to Follow
- Good Stewards Support Their Church Leaders
- Distinguishing Between Two Groups
- Good Stewards Give to Those Unable to Work
- When NOT Giving Makes Us Poor Stewards
- Poor Stewards Give to Those Unwilling to Work
- Keep Doing Good
When I was growing up, I became friends with a boy my age who lived in a trailer park. As we got to know each other, I noticed his parents were always home. I thought dads woke up and, on most days, went to work. Then they came home in the evening. That’s what my dad did, as well as the other dads I knew. I projected that expectation on my friend’s father and was surprised when this wasn’t the case.
One time he invited me into his parents’ little trailer, and they were playing Nintendo. When we left, he told me, “That’s what my parents do.” Along with eating and sleeping, that seemed to be about all they did. I never even saw them go outside. Because this was before I knew what welfare was, I wondered how they had money for living expenses.
There has been much debate about our responsibility to the unemployed, uninsured, and uneducated in our society. Many of the people affected by economic downturns or other unfortunate circumstances desire to work but can’t find employment. On the other side of the spectrum are those who have become generational welfare recipients, preferring to remain on the government dole. How should we as Christians respond to these scenarios?
A Better Approach to Giving to the Poor
Under the Mosaic law, the welfare system in Israel instructed farmers, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:22; see also Leviticus 19:9 and Deuteronomy 24:19.). Our government gives people handouts that require little more than standing in line or walking to a mailbox to collect a check. I believe God’s approach was better for two reasons:
- It provided for the poor by encouraging those who were capable of being productive to also be generous. This stands in contrast to the redistribution of wealth that our nation promotes by taking from those with more to give to those with less.
- It required effort from the poor. God did not tell farmers to harvest everything and then give to the poor. Instead, He told farmers to leave enough for the poor to gather it themselves. Work gives people a sense of purpose, productivity, and dignity, which is why involving the needy in the process was to their benefit.
Ruth showed the beauty of this approach. She asked Naomi, whom she was caring for, “Please let me go to the field, and glean heads of grain after him in whose sight I may find favor.” (Ruth 2:2). She could have said, “I’m with my mother-in-law, and we’re both childless widows. We’re weak and vulnerable, so everyone should give to us out of pity.” Instead, she went to the field and gathered an ephah of barley, which is about twenty-six quarts (Ruth 2:17). Her example is a strong rebuke to those who could contribute to meeting their needs instead of expecting handouts.
Because we aren’t in the Old Testament under God’s welfare system, knowing who to give to requires balance and wisdom. As true as it is that giving is part of being a good steward, it is equally true that knowing when not to give is also part of being a good steward.
A Command Versus Suggestion
Scripture provides us with guidelines on when to give and when not to give. The instruction we need is in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, so we will consider this passage carefully. In verse 6, Paul wrote, “We command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.”
The strong language “we command” carried Paul’s apostolic authority; therefore, this is a binding order versus a suggestion or recommendation. The Greek word translated “command” is paraggello, which is a military term meaning “an order handed down from a superior officer.” The same word is used four times in this passage, in verse 4, verse 6, and twice in verse 10 because the church is an army:
- Second Timothy 2:3-4 says a Christian “must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ…that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier.”
- Philippians 2:25 and Philemon 1:2 call Epaphroditus and Archippus fellow soldiers.
- Ephesians 6:11-17 commands Christians to wear armor and carry a sword.
If soldiers do not obey orders, the result is disorder. Unfortunately, some of the Thessalonians were “idle” or in “idleness” (verses 7 and 11). The Greek word is ataktos, and it means “out of ranks, often so of soldiers.” The same Greek word is in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 where it’s translated as “insubordinate.” We are commanded to keep away from these people, as well as those not following “the tradition,” which refers to part of Paul’s previous letter: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).1
Here’s the point that we must consider: If we should keep away from people who call themselves Christians but are idle or lazy, it is hard to imagine that God would expect us to give them money.
A Good Example to Follow
Paul modeled what he preached, so he frequently told believers to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9). Although it seems odd to imitate anyone other than Christ, in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” Because Paul imitated Christ, by telling others to imitate him, he was indirectly telling people to imitate Christ. There’s application for us in this passage because all Christians should see themselves as examples through whom others see Christ.
In the following verses, Paul urged people to follow his example—he himself was a hard worker and not idle:
You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).
Paul gave up his right to receive financial support, choosing instead to work to meet his needs and the needs of others. In his previous letter, he wrote, “You remember, brethren, our labor and toil; for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:9). This lightened the financial burden on the infant church and silenced accusers—nobody could say Paul was in the ministry for the money. In every city there were itinerant teachers trying to get as much money as possible from people, and Paul didn’t want to be classified with them. As he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:18, he wanted to “present the gospel of Christ free of charge,” so money wouldn’t be a hindrance.
But the fact Paul did not receive money brings up a good question that has financial implications for us: Should church leaders be paid?
Good Stewards Support Their Church Leaders
While church leaders have the right to set aside financial support like Paul did, his example is descriptive versus prescriptive. Other pastors don’t need to do the same, and most couldn’t even if they wanted to, especially those with a wife and children (which Paul did not have). Elsewhere, he wrote that church leaders have the right to receive support from their congregations:
- “Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14).
- “Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches” (Galatians 6:6).
- “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:17-18).
Jesus taught the same principle:
- When He sent out the 12, He said, “Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food” (Matthew 10:9-10).
- When He sent out the 70, He said, “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not go from house to house” (Luke 10:7).
Even though Scripture is clear that church leaders should be compensated adequately for their labor, many of them are overworked and underpaid. Consider the following excerpts from articles on pastors’ salaries:
The National Association of Evangelicals did a 2015 study of more than 4,000 ministers nationwide and found that half make less than $50,000 per year. More than three in four knew someone who left ministry due to financial stress. I’ve talked to denominational leaders who found that many millennial pastors, a few years into ministry, had significant doubts about continuing due to inadequate pay.
Many pastors are under extreme stress because they do not have adequate income to meet their financial obligations. Like anyone else who is under heavy financial burdens, a pastor can find his thoughts consumed with worry. Because he is so distracted, he naturally is less effective in his ministry. Both he and his family feel the pressure.
Some pastors leave their churches because of pay issues. You will not likely hear a pastor announce in his resignation that he is leaving because of financial pressures. The reality is that, for a number of pastors, the issue of compensation is a major push from one church to another, or from the church to a secular vocation. It’s not that the pastor is in his job for the money; it’s that the compensation for his vocation is insufficient to meet his family’s needs.
I serve as a regional facilitator over Washington and Oregon for Church and Family Life. Many of the pastors I communicate with are forced to work secular jobs too. They tell me how grueling it is to be bivocational. What does this have to do with giving to the poor? Sadly, many pastors are poor! Be a good steward by giving to your local church. Not only will you help support your pastor, more importantly, you will please God.
One of the nice things about giving to your church is the elders or church leadership can then determine the best uses of the money, such as paying the pastor(s), supporting ministries and missionaries, and handling benevolence. A few years ago, one of the women in the church I pastor said, “So-and-so asked me for money. I told her to ask you, because I thought you would be better able to determine whether to help.” I agreed with her, because church leaders typically are in a better position to investigate benevolence issues and determine whether to give and, if so, and how much. Church leaders can also offer other resources that are needed, such as counseling and books, and figuring out ways to get needy people plugged into a church. If all we do is help people financially but don’t help them spiritually, then we have hardly helped them. We haven’t provided lasting solutions that enable them to become self-sufficient. Most importantly, we want to give people the gospel to help them eternally.
Distinguishing Between Two Groups
What about when we face situations that can’t be given over to elders or church leaders? For example, while driving, we see someone standing on the street corner asking for money. We can’t roll down the window and say, “Go ask my pastor.” How do we know whether to give or not give?
The early church faced a situation that helps us determine what to do. Acts 2:45 says they “sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” The new believers were happy to care for those who couldn’t care for themselves, but some took advantage of the generosity, became freeloaders, and lived off others’ sacrifices. Paul attempted to combat this: “Even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). This command was so important he also communicated it in person (“when we were with you”).
The words “will not work” allow us to distinguish between two completely different groups: those unable to work and those unwilling to work. Let’s examine how we should respond to both groups so we can be good stewards.
Good Stewards Give to Those Unable to Work
Some people experience physical handicaps or family responsibilities that prevent them from working. Others need financial help because of unfortunate circumstances: “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (Proverbs 13:23). They worked hard enough that their fields would produce abundant food, but they lost it because of conditions outside of their control.
God’s Word gives us insight into His heart for the less fortunate and expectation that we will help them. In the New Testament we see these passages:
- Jesus said, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11).
- “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15-16).
- “Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
The Old Testament contains similar instruction:
- “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7; see also 24:12 and Proverbs 31:9).
- “He who despises his neighbor sins; but he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he” (Proverbs 14:21).
- “The righteous considers the cause of the poor, but the wicked does not understand such knowledge” (Proverbs 29:7).
So important was it to care for those in need that God said He would bless those who did so:
- “You shall surely give to [the poor] freely, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand” (Deuteronomy 15:10).
- “He who has a generous eye will be blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
- “He who gives to the poor will not lack, but he who hides his eyes will have many curses” (Proverbs 28:27).
Josiah was arguably the greatest king of the southern kingdom of Judah. God attributed the nation’s prosperity to his care for the poor: “[Josiah] judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well” (Jeremiah 22:16).
We talked about the principle of sowing and reaping, and it is in effect when we give to the poor: “He who has pity on the poor lends to the LORD, and he will pay back what he has given” (Proverbs 19:17; see also Proverbs 11:24). We give to serve God, versus giving to receive, but at the same time, God says He will provide a return on our investment.
When helping the less fortunate, if you have children, you can come together as a family and say, “These people are struggling, and we are privileged to be able to help them. God has blessed us, and we get to bless them. Let’s pray for them and give thanks for this wonderful opportunity, because, as the Lord said in Acts 20:35, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
When NOT Giving Makes Us Poor Stewards
What about neglecting those in need? God says they:
- insult Him: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14:31; see also 17:5).
- will be ignored by Him: “Whoever shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13).
- will become poor themselves: “He who oppresses the poor to increase his riches, and he who gives to the rich, will surely come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:16).
- will lose their lives: “Do not rob the poor…for the LORD will plead their cause, and plunder the soul of those who plunder them” (Proverbs 22:22-23).
- will be punished: “I will not turn away its punishment, because [the Israelites] sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals. They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor, and pervert the way of the humble” (Amos 2:6-7; see also 4:1, 5:11-12, 8:4-10, Isaiah 3:13-15, 10:1-4).
Although homosexuality is the sin most associated with Sodom, the city was also condemned for ignoring the less fortunate: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
These passages reveal just how important it is to care for those in need. God offers blessings to those who do so and discipline to those who don’t. But what about people who are poor not because of unfortunate circumstances, but because of their own choices? Scripture helps us understand how to respond to them as well.
Poor Stewards Give to Those Unwilling to Work
Proverbs 21:25 says the lazy man’s “hands refuse to labor.” This is the person in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, who “is not willing to work” and therefore should “not eat.” As important as it is to give to those who through no fault of their own find themselves struggling financially, it is equally important to avoid giving to those who through fault of their own find themselves struggling financially. The Bible discusses a few causes of poverty, and laziness is one of the most common: “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 10:4 NIV; see also Proverbs 13:4; 20:4, 13; 24:34).
When well-meaning people disobey the command not to give to those unwilling to work (yes, Paul said “we commanded you” in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, so it is a command), they often defend their actions by saying something like, “Well, if they’re not going to use the money wisely, then that’s on them. I’ll just let God sort it out.” No. It’s on us because we’re disobeying a command. He wants us to sort it out.
Common sense tells us we can’t give to every need. Even the wealthiest philanthropists must decide what to do and not do with their money. Saying yes to something means saying no to something else in most areas of life, but it is especially true when our resources are limited, such as time and money. Hypothetically, even if we had the money to give at every opportunity, doing so would make us poor stewards because there are times when giving does more harm than good. Enabling is not loving. As is the case with all disobedience, there are negative consequences. Let’s consider the four reasons it is detrimental to give to those unwilling to work.
First, Giving to the Poor at the Wrong Time Wastes Money
As a pastor, I’ve had weeks that I have had more people ask for money than for prayer. There are some differences in the requests: sometimes it’s a phone call, while other times it’s a person coming to the church. But one thing variable that is almost always the same is there’s a story that describes the most unfortunate circumstances imaginable; Job looks blessed compared to many of these people. Dealing with them is one of the most unenjoyable parts of my job not because I don’t want to help, but because as soon as they can tell that I will not give them money, they want nothing else to do with me.
In my years pastoring, I can think of only one person we helped financially who later communicated his appreciation. I can’t think of anyone we helped financially who was helped spiritually. In other words, the money we gave didn’t lead to salvation, sanctification, or regular church attendance. Maybe God did do something through our gift, but if He did, it was unknown to me.
Granted, whenever we help, no strings should be attached. We are not looking for a pat on the back or any sort of repayment. But because I have seen so little fruit from giving money to people who have asked, I’m left wondering how much better of a steward I might have been if I had given that same money to one of our missionaries or to someone with a proven need instead.
Second, Giving to the Poor at the Wrong Time Hinders Repentance
Those who are not willing to work should not be given anything because that can shortchange the work God wants to do in their lives—they’re prevented from experiencing the consequences of their actions. It is in their best interest to reach the low point that can lead to repentance. That is what happened with the prodigal son:
He was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.”’Luke 15:16-18
How much damage would’ve been done if well-meaning people “helped” the prodigal son? He reached the point of repentance because nobody gave him anything. Everything that works against repentance is detrimental, even if it looks loving, as charity does.
Those who are “not willing to work” should “not eat” because hunger can motivate them to find employment. But if they’re given charity, then hunger is prevented from being the strong incentive God desires that can lead to repentance.
Third, Giving to the Poor at the Wrong Time Enables Further Sin
When we give to people who are unwilling to work, we may very well be indirectly encouraging them to engage in other sins. When people aren’t spending their time and energy profitably, they often find unprofitable ways to spend them. Paul described this in the next verse of the passage we’ve been unpacking: “We hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11).
When people aren’t busy working, they become “busybodies.” Idleness breeds compromise and is a foundation for other sins. Apparently the Thessalonians hadn’t learned, because Paul wrote in his first letter: “Aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). If they were busy with work, they wouldn’t have the time or energy to worry about others. First Timothy 5:13 says something similar: “They learn to be idle, wandering from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.” They weren’t busy working, so they became busy gossiping.
When I was an elementary schoolteacher, I knew that keeping students busy is the best way to manage their behavior. When students are working, they don’t have the time to get into trouble. The same is often true with adults. As a pastor, I have found that it is often people with too much time on their hands that are overly concerned with others. People who are busy serving don’t have the time to worry about others. If David had been with his men in battle, he would have been too busy to see Bathsheba. Spurgeon said, “A man who wastes his time in sloth offers himself to be a target for the devil, who is an awfully good rifleman. In other words, idle men tempt the devil to tempt them.”
Knowing this, Paul continued, “Such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living (2 Thessalonians 3:12). This is the fourth command (previously in verses 4, 6, and 10), and he added an exhortation with two parts: First, “work quietly” instead of causing division and disruptions. Second, “earn [a] living” versus receiving charity.
What does this have to do with giving? When we give to those who are unwilling to work, not only are we enabling them to continue in their sin, but we are also allowing them to engage in further sin through their idleness. The best gift to give lazy people is not food or money, but a job.
Fourth, Giving to the Poor at the Wrong Time Prevents Shame
Let me explain what shame is, biblically speaking, so we can understand why it’s important for those who are unwilling to work to experience it. Genesis 2:25 says Adam and Eve “were both naked…and were not ashamed.” This is the opposite of the way they should have felt because many verses associate nakedness with shame: “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yes, your shame will be seen; I will take vengeance, and I will not arbitrate with a man” (Isaiah 20:4; see also Isaiah 20:4, 47:3, Nahum 3:5, Micah 1:11, Revelation 3:18, 16:15).
Some of the verses are about pagans who aren’t prone to experiencing shame, yet even they felt shame when naked; therefore, why didn’t Adam and Even experience any?
Shame can only be produced by the knowledge that you have done something wrong. For example, imagine you enter the home of people who always take their shoes off, but you don’t know that’s their practice. You walk around feeling fine until the owner says, “We always take our shoes off.” Then you feel ashamed. Or, have you ever started eating only for someone to say, “Why don’t we say grace and thank God for the food?” Now you’re ashamed.
Because Adam and Eve hadn’t yet eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they didn’t know there was anything wrong with what they were doing; therefore, they felt no shame. In Genesis 3:5, Satan said, “God knows that in the day you eat of [the tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This was true! Satan mixes truth with lies because then the lies sound more convincing. They ate, and “at that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves” (Genesis 3:7). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil gave them the knowledge it was wrong for them to be naked, and they were ashamed. So they tried to clothe themselves.
What does this have to do with giving? When people are not willing to work but we give them money, we are showing them our support. This prevents them from developing the knowledge that their unwillingness to work is wrong. Hence Paul’s continued instructions: “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:13-14). It is detrimental to give to those not willing to work because it prevents them from experiencing shame that can lead to their repentance.
Keep Doing Good
Let me draw your attention to Paul’s encouragement to “not grow weary in doing good.” We should read these words as though God is saying them to us because He is! The Thessalonians needed this encouragement, and we do too. It is easy to become cynical, stop giving, and neglect the genuinely needy just because some people are not willing to work.
We have all needed people’s help at times in our lives, and there are times God wants us to help others in need. There are people who, through no fault of their own, are struggling financially. They shouldn’t suffer further just because there are others who happen to take advantage of our giving. We want these less fortunate people to see Christ through our charity.
Let me leave you with this one great encouragement: When we help the genuinely needy, it as though we are helping Christ, who said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
- Traditions require wisdom because sometimes Scripture presents them positively, and other times negatively:
- 1 Corinthians 11:2—“Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.”
- 2 Thessalonians 2:15—“Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”
These verses make traditions look good, but Colossians 2:8 says, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” In Mark 7, the religious leaders criticized Jesus because His disciples ate with unwashed hands. This wasn’t a hygienic handwashing, but a ceremonial one that had no basis in Scripture. Five times (in verses 3, 5, 8, 9, and 13) their handwashing is called “the tradition of the elders,” “the tradition of men,” or “your tradition.” In Mark 7:6-12, Jesus rebuked them, saying they were hypocrites and their traditions
- “[taught] as doctrines the commandments of men” (verse 7).
- “[laid] aside the commandment of God” (verse 8).
- “[were kept to] reject the commandment of God” (verse 9).
- “[made] the word of God of no effect” (verse 13).
People in the early church could determine which traditions to follow by reading the Scriptures and obeying the teachings from the apostles, such as Paul and Peter. Acts 2:42 says the early church “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”